By Brian and Diana Svelnis
After much research and map gazing we decided to paddle 850 km across Poland by canoe during the summer of 2010. My wife and I are fifty-something and definitely not thrill seekers and most of Poland is flat. We learned that the rivers were filled with fish, and various migratory birds lived along them. A healthy river, a long distance paddle on flat water without portages and all in a safe country with a unique culture seemed to be perfect.
We have owned a 16′ Pakboat canoe since 2006 and have made a couple of trips to Central America with it, the longest being a 250 km. crossing of Nicaragua.
We packed up our camping gear along with the canoe and headed off to Przemysl in SE Poland. The San river flows through this city and we set out from here on June 13. Our plan was to follow this river 175 km. northward to where it enters the Vistula river and then paddle the Vistula 225 km. to Warsaw.
The San river is silt-laden as it emerges from the foothills of the Tatra mountains, and as it travels north it leaves gorgeous sand banks along the way. We camped on these clean sandy beaches which always appeared at just the right time. The shore was lined with small willows and filled with songbirds which were a delight to listen to. We saw absolutely no one on the water as recreation boating is negligible in southern Poland. Buildings of any kind are rare within several hundred meters of the shore as these rivers are notorious for quickly rising and overflowing their banks. This is one of the reasons that camping along the rivers in this country is completely acceptable. The land along the banks is not private property and is considered to be worthless because of the threat of flooding. We saw numerous fisherman sitting on the riverbank and occasionally heard the sound of farm tractors and dogs barking in the distance. Other than that we had the river to ourselves. We reached the Vistula river after 10 days and found a much more powerful river. On this day it was flowing
against a wind that was kicking up some whitecaps.
The Vistula is Poland’s most significant river as it is the largest and longest and completely bisects the country. It was in
flood while we were in Krakow in late May and the city officials were scrambling to save bridges and property. The river was tearing through the country causing havoc everywhere and definitely not a place for a small open boat. The evidence of the earlier flooding was obvious as the shoreline was continually lined with debris that had been washed down the river. Bits of plastic bags were stuck to branches over 3 meters above the present water level and many trees which had been uprooted were piled here and there. We zoomed along at about 6-7 kph. easily as the river was moving now at a steady 4-5. The mornings were particularly calm.
It took us 26 leisurely days to complete this 400km. Part of our trip included a 5 night stay at a campground in Kazimierz-
Dolny. The Vistula becomes busier below Warsaw and so our plans included taking our gear by train up to northern Poland. From there we would paddle a 450km. series of connected rivers, lakes and canals southward back to Warsaw to complete our crossing of Poland. We found a campground in Suwalki which was on the Czarna Hanza river that provided us our put-in spot.
We had read that this river was Poland’s highlight paddling destination and the water quality did not disappoint us. I knew
that the designated kayak route along this river started at Wigry lake, a further 18 km. downriver but I felt confident that
we could manage any obstacles that might appear before then. We had quite a long first day which included 3 short portages and perhaps another dozen barriers of fallen trees, log jams and low foot bridges to negotiate before reaching the lake. When we finally arrived at Wigry we found it was lined with reeds and marshes and camping was impossible so it was necessary to make the 4km. lake crossing and set up a camp at dusk. At least the sunset was enjoyable.
The Czarna Hanza river is protected by a national park and camping is allowed only at designated, albeit plentiful, spots.
For the next 100km. it is a very popular kayaking route especially on summer weekends. Kayak rental outfitters are abundant and families and groups of friends are out all along this section. It is really an amazing social scene that includes every age group from 8 to 80. It was great to see the Polish people on their vacation and we have to say that they are definitely out to have a good time. Various groups would pass through singing and laughing and it was common to see beer cans in handy drink holders attached to their kayaks. The river could hardly be more placid and that was a good thing as paddling skills of any kind were rare. We watched groups of paddlers mismanage their way around one bend in the river across from our camp and bury themselves in the reeds. Almost all of them were day trippers headed for their prearranged take-out spot.
A unique phenomenon was the appearance of vendors selling homemade baked goods along the shoreline. We stopped and bought fresh blueberry scones from this enthusiastic saleswoman sitting in the reeds.
Two days on the Czarna Hanza brought us to the Augustow canal. This is an historic canal which was built in the early 19th century connecting the Vistula river in Poland with the Nemanus river in Belarus. Over the next 5 days we followed it west through a series of 12 hand-operated locks that are still functioning as originally built. Some of these locks create lakes which are the center of Polish summer recreation play land. Campgrounds are plentiful along the water and fishing is the main activity when not cooling off in the lakes. We arrived in the town of Augustow, about halfway along the canal system, and paddled into a hotel marina to treat ourselves with a room for the night. The next day we left the vacation play land behind to finish the last 30 km. of the canal before it joins the Biebrza river. The largest of Poland’s national parks straddles the Biebrza and provides some protection for a large variety of wildlife that live and migrate through here. Camping is again only in designated campgrounds which are in the few villages along the river. The river winds it’s way through tall reeds and marshes and getting off the river to look around is difficult. However, there are elevated viewing platforms that give you a chance to look at this unique ecosystem from above at most campsites. From there it’s possible to see some of the flocks of migrating geese or perhaps a moose if you’re fortunate.
Six days later we left the Biebrza and joined the Narew river for the final 225 km. to Warsaw. The high river banks were a pleasure to see again as we were able to camp or just stop for a break wherever we wished. The Narew flowed by cattle pastures and pine woods but the shoreline was always available. We stopped in towns every few days to get groceries with never any problems. As we neared Warsaw the river turned into a reservoir and we had to make camp to wait for the wind to ease to make our crossing. After one more 15km. canal and lock we entered the Vistula which was once again becoming dangerously high due to rains in the south. A tough 5 km. paddle up the Vistula took us 4 hours and we arrived
in Warsaw 26 days out of Suwalki.
We found Poland to be an easy country to do this kind of independent travel because it’s safe, it has efficient transportation systems and the people are hospitable. Camping is also possible almost everywhere. The rivers are your basic moving flat water variety but their appeal comes from the rural “old world” culture through which they flow. This adventure was possible because we had the good fortune to purchase a Pakboat canoe. This well designed craft has survived the continual loading and unloading, the dragging up riverbanks and the passing over and through obstacles on our trips extremely well.